February 1, 1998
4th Sunday after Epiphany
RC/Pres: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Common Lectionary Readings
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Love Is Not All You Need
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
The Christian faith, in its teaching about men and women in marriage, has stressed fidelity and commitment more than it has stressed love. For Christians, love is the result of commitment rather than its cause. We would not be able to remain committed in our love were it not for God's grace in enabling us to keep our commitments - particularly the commitment of marriage.
Introduction to the Readings
Jeremiah receives his call to be a prophet.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Here is Paul's famous hymn to love.
14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; 17 and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
20 And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (RSV)
Jesus is rejected at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
Lord, bless us in our families and in our marriages. Help us to be faithful, committed, and willing to endure even times of unhappiness in order to remain faithful.
In a world in which our affections change quickly, and everything is measured in the short term, give us the gifts we need to be faithful in all our commitments to one another over time. Amen.
Encountering the Text
While today's beloved epistle, 1 Corinthians 13, is concerned with love in a most unloving congregation, most contemporary Christians probably think of this passage in connection with love and marriage. It is a great favorite at weddings.
We shall utilize this text in a meditation upon Christian marriage. While Paul here claims that "the greatest of these is love," we shall argue that love, specifically Christian love, is a gift of God, a disposition that is dependent upon fidelity more than feelings. While love is great, commitment is even greater, particularly in the context of marriage.
A couple of weeks before the celebration of St. Valentine's Day, we shall think about love and marriage from a peculiarly Christian point of view.
Proclaiming the Text
Paul speaks to us today about love. You know today's epistle well. Without love, you are nothing. With love, you have everything. Love is even greater than faith or hope. The greatest of all is love.
Today I'd like to speak about love - love in a Christian context. I've also got my mind on marriage. "Why is it," a young person asked me the other day, "that whenever the church says something about love, they always get on the subject of marriage?" Good question. His question suggested to me that Christians really don't believe in love outside the context of long-term, public commitment. In fact, it could be said that we're not as much into love as into commitment.
Recently, I shared in the leadership of a wedding. My fellow pastor said to the couple during the course of the ritual, "The only thing you need to remember in your marriage is to love one another. Love overcomes everything. Only love matters."
Do you believe that is true? Do you believe, to quote the old Beatles song, "Love is all you need"?
At first glance, that appears to be what Paul is saying in this beloved song to love in 1 Corinthians 13. Only love endures. Love overcomes all things. Faith, hope, love - these are all wonderful virtues - but the greatest of all is love.
Perhaps because our culture has so twisted and perverted that word love, I think we need to take care in our thoughts about love. In a couple of weeks, some of us will celebrate St. Valentine's Day, a day surely dreamed up by florists and greeting card manufacturers, in which it appears that romantic love is the cure for everything that ails us.
But any of you who have been in love, in a romantic way, know how notoriously short-lived are our feelings of romantic love. Part of the joy of romantic love is that it is fragile, coming upon us quickly like a fever, usually burning out with time.
In the wedding in which I recently participated, after the minister had told the couple that all they needed was love, we had an original poem read by the young poet, which told us that all the whole world needed to solve all of its problems was love. Then we had two songs sung, current hits, which also celebrated the joys of love. Love, love, love.
Yet, I thought something was missing. What I think was missing, in this thoroughly contemporary wedding, was God. Marriage was spoken of exclusively as a purely human achievement, something based upon our efforts to love.
One might get that impression from a text like 1 Corinthians 13. Paul, who has been begging the feuding Christians at Corinth to get along, now begs them to love one another. Yet Paul does so in a context of their commitment to Christ. Love, Christian love, is a sign of our relationship to Christ, not the cause of it. We love, commitedly, faithfully, because God in Christ has loved us in those ways.
I've sometimes noted how, when one considers how much we talk about love, it is curious that in the traditional wedding services so little is mentioned about love. There is much talk of commitment, fidelity, being true to promises, but not all that much talk of love.
The minister never asks, "John, do you love Susan?" In the service the minister asks, "John will you love Susan?" Love is spoken of in the future tense. Most of the couples we marry probably think they are getting married because they love each other. Yet, the service suggests that love is the result of our commitment in marriage rather than its cause. Love is the fruit of marriage.
So in marriage, in the church, in any of our human relationships, we do not believe that love is all we need. Our love tends to be short-term, fickle, changeable. What we need is something that keeps us close to people, even when they are difficult, even when we are difficult. We need something to keep our marriage even when we don't feel like it. So, we Christians tend to stress things like fidelity and commitment more than we stress love.
The person who says, "The Christian faith can be summed up in just three words, 'God is love,'" hasn't quite got it right. God is not only love, certainly not as we often use that slippery word. God is commitment, faithfulness even when we are not faithful. So the Old Testament frequently speaks, not just about the love of God, but the steadfast love of God. It is not a deep feeling that makes love Christian, but long-term endurance.
We believe that it is impossible for mere mortals like us to stay faithful and committed on our own. So we ask God's blessing upon our marriages and all our loving relationships. Love is a gift of God, not a human achievement. So we ask that we be given the grace to love one another as God has loved each of us in Christ - completely, committedly, forever. Love is not all you need. You need God - loving you, forgiving you, judging and correcting you, enabling you to pick up and start over, giving you the humility to see how difficult you are to love, thus making it easier for you to love someone else and their faults. Love is a gift of God.
It takes three to love. It takes someone to offer love, someone to receive it. It also takes God.
Relating the Text
"Recent research indicates that, in part at least, what we call 'falling in love' can be attributed to the presence in the body of a drug called 'phenyle-thylamine,' that is a form of natural amphetamine. (Imagine, if Cole Porter had known about this he could have written a song, 'I get a phenyle-thylamine out of you.') The problem is, as research also reveals, we build up a tolerance for this chemical in about two to four years...I really like the story about a couple celebrating their fortieth anniversary with a quiet dinner for two. The wife picks up her champagne glass and says, 'In spite of everything!' Saint Valentine might not approve. But Saint Paul would understand...After all it was Paul who wrote, 'Love bears all things...endures all things,' which is another way of saying that love endures because it puts up with a lot! Love at first sight - that's easy to understand. It is after forty years that it becomes a miracle."
Martin B. Copenhaver, "Saint Paul on Saint Valentine," Pulpit Digest, January/February 1994, pp. 15-16
John Calvin notes that talk of love in the context of the bitterly divided church at Corinth seems a bit strange. However, it makes the affirmation of love all the more significant when applied to a divided church:
Among the Corinthians no slight number had gone astray; in fact almost the whole body was infected. There was not one kind of sin only, but very many; and they were no light errors but frightful mis-deeds; there was corruption not only of morals but of doctrine. What does the holy apostle...do about this? Does he seek to separate himself from such? Does he cast them out of Christ's Kingdom? Does he fell them with the ultimate thunderbolt of anathema? He not only does nothing of the sort; he even recognizes and proclaims them to be the church of Christ and the communion of the saints. (Calvin, Institutes 4.1.14, p. 1028.)
"To love at all," C. S. Lewis once wrote, "is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one...It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.
"The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1960, p. 169
The cynical atheist, Nietzsche, ridiculed Christianity's stress upon love:
The most subtle artifice that distinguishes Christianity from other religions is a word: it speaks of love. Thus it became the lyrical religion (whereas in both their other creations the Semites presented the world with heroic-epic religions). There is some-thing so ambiguous and suggestive about the word love, something that speaks to memory and to hope, that even the lowest intelligence and the coldest heart still feel something of the glimmer of this world. The cleverest woman and the most vulgar man recall the relatively least selfish moment of their whole life, even if Eros has taken only a low flight with them; and for those countless ones who miss love, whether from their parents or their children or their beloved, and especially for people with sublimated sexuality, Christianity has always been a find. (Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann, ed. and trans. [New York: Penguin Books], p. 65.)
"Love which stems from created things is like a small lamp whose light is sustained by being fed with olive-oil."
"Again, it is like a river fed by rainfall; once the supply that feeds it fails, the surge of its flow abates."
"But love whose cause is God is like a spring welling up from the depths: its flow never abates, for God alone is that spring of love whose supply never fails."
Isaac of Syria
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C., wrote an article titled "The Moral State of Marriage," which appeared in the September 1995 issue of Atlantic Monthly. In the article, Whitehead reviewed Ivana Trump's book The Best Is Yet to Come: Coping with Divorce and Enjoying Life Again (Pocket Books, 269 pages, $23.00).
Fabulous divorce used to be the prerogative of the rich and famous, but not anymore. Over the past three decades, as divorce has become fully democratized, there has been a growing demand by the "little people" (in Leona Helmsley's memorable phrase) for the secrets of fabulous divorce. And who better to instruct the masses than America's most celebrated ex-wife, Ivana Trump?
Since her high-profile split from Donald, Ivana's life and fortunes have improved. She has ventured into fiction with two novels, For Love Alone and Free to Love, and has moved into a successful sales career with her signature line of clothing, cosmetics, and jewelry now available on the Home Shopping Network. Better still, since her divorce she has lost weight, gained a new beau, and made the best-dressed list. Now Ivana seeks to reach other women going through divorce with the inspirational message in the title of her book: The Best Is Yet to Come.
Her book breaks new ground in one important way...Divorce books for women emphasize personal growth and liberation, while those for men emphasize "winning" at the game of divorce (typical examples are Divorced Women, New Lives for Women, and Winning Your Divorce: A Man's Survival Guide). In The Best Is Yet to Come, Ivana bridges the gender gap with the ultimate divorce fantasy. She shows women how to boost their savings accounts and their self-esteem, not to mention their faces and fannies. As she puts it, divorce is the ultimate makeover.
On the financial-makeover side Ivana's advice is straightforward: "get yourself a great settlement - and before you do, take his wallet to the cleaners." Of course, some women don't know the first thing about their husband's financial status, so it may be necessary to do some snooping and spying: "In this game we call divorce, whoever has the most information wins." Ivana recommends a kind of grown-up version of a treasure hunt, in which wives search for clues to their husbands' net worth by following a paper trail of credit-card bills, bank statements - indeed, anything "that comes to the house with a dollar sign on it." Somewhere, she predicts, is the prize - that little piece of paper on which men write down what they're worth: stocks, cash, property, the whole caboodle. "I don't know exactly why men do this," her financial guru shrugs. "I just know they do." You can almost hear the Czech-born Ivana heave a weary Old World sigh of assent.
On the self-esteem and personal-growth side, divorce requires a complete overhaul. Throwing out a spouse is like cleaning out a messy closet. You get rid of the stuff from last year and the mistakes from the year before, the detritus and junk of the past. The emotional airing-out gives women a chance to take stock, to look at themselves critically. "Have you been living in the fashion past?" Ivana gently chides, before delivering the hardball truth: Marriage puts too many women in a rut. Married women lose their sense of self, their competitive edge, their initiative and independence...
Next Ivana suggests a good, cleansing shopping spree: "Get rid of your grungy married-woman's underwear and go for the colors and the silks and the lace."
The shopping spree is fun, a chance to take last revenge on your soon-to-be-ex's American Express card. But the hard work of the divorce makeover lies ahead. Divorce is a chance to shed old skin: Ivana strongly advises the use of alphahydroxy acid, a key ingredient in her new Ivana line of cosmetics, to exfoliate the skin. If you're still feeling saggy, she concedes, you may have to consult a plastic surgeon. "Explore. Experiment. See? There are very nice words that start with 'ex.'"
The Best Is Yet to Come is a cross between Lifestyles of the Rich and Divorced and a Home Shopping Network infomercial...It is hard to be mad at Ivana, though, because every page or two you have to put down the book and laugh. In fact, The Best Is Yet to Come is the funniest book on divorce I've ever read.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the book as a joke. Like all great marketers, Ivana is culturally adept as well as commercially astute. She has a great feel for the mainstream values she seeks to exploit, and her book, properly read and appreciated, tells us much about what is distinctive about the American way of divorce.
For one thing, Ivana's commercial exploitation of divorce is thoroughly in the American grain. A century ago, western state legislators and entrepreneurs made divorce a staple of their economic-development strategy by setting the residency requirement for divorce at a mere few months, attracting easterners to their hotels and resorts. Today the commerce in divorce has gone far beyond the schemes of nineteenth-century entrepreneurs. Over the past three decades a huge divorce industry, with a booming professional service sector of lawyers, therapists, financial experts, and child psychiatrists, has sprung up to harvest the fruits of family discord. The commercial tradition may help to explain why polls show that Republicans are more tolerant of divorce than Democrats and why Republican leaders, for all their high-minded talk of family values, are skittish about criticizing divorce.
If marketplace values are part of an established divorce tradition, divorce has only recently been harnessed to the great American tradition of self-improvement...[an] idea [that] has enormous appeal in the nation with the highest divorce rate in the industrialized world...The association of divorce with a new life, a renewed spirit, an awakening from a slumberous and zombie-like marital existence, pervades popular American thinking on marital breakup.
Too, Ivana's persona as a woman "made over" through her divorce reflects broader cultural ideas about divorce as the means for women to take initiative and express their independence. Men may also use divorce to escape into a new identity, but men's propensity to divorce is associated with classic forms of bad behavior - infidelity, alcoholism, violence - rather than with "growthful" change.
If divorce provides opportunities for self-invention, marriage makes no competing cultural claims. In recent years, marriage has been identified with stasis, stagnation, or worse, oppression and depression. Of course, Americans haven't given up on marriage entirely, but there is evidence of growing disenchantment. Both marriage and remarriage rates are declining, while less formal, more easily dissoluble unions are on the rise. This disenchantment may explain why marriage attracts so little attention from family researchers. In fact, if you wander through college bookstores looking for scholarly studies on the subject, you might easily conclude from the meager offerings that marriage is a cultic practice, remote from everyday life and concerns.
...the challenges of marriage are essentially moral [marriage is]...a school of virtue, a domain that requires tact and restraint along with open and honest communication, kindness and gratitude along with assertiveness and autonomy. Take the matter of fighting. Good marriages are not free of conflict. However, the conflict is governed by a respect for the partner's deepest vul-nerabilities. No matter how fierce the anger, it stops short of the cruelest cut. Spouses learn what the relationship can tolerate without breaking.
At the same time, marriage requires the exercise of moral imagination. One thing the couples in these good marriages have in common is a vision of the marriage as a "super-ordinate" entity - something that is separate from and larger than its two parts. The men and women in this study speak of protecting "the marriage" almost as if it were their child; it is a creation they cherish and share. In another sense, too, good marriages are expressions of the imagination. These happily married people see their spouses as essentially admirable and good - as morally worthy. Many express admiration for their partner's conscience or honesty, or praise their courage in overcoming earlier obstacles in life.
George S. Kaufman is said to have told Irving Berlin that the lyrics to his famous song "Always" ought to be more realistically written to sing rather than, "I'll be loving you, always," to "I'll be loving you, Thursday."